Manning versus Newton: Previewing the Super Bowl, 2016

sb_trophyWill the Broncos or Panthers win Super Bowl 50?

As usual in professional football, this question will get answered by the quarterbacks, Peyton Manning and Cam Newton. Put bluntly, it’s the old man versus one of the most athletic human beings in the world. If you didn’t follow sports, you would never guess which one of these guys is being investigated for PED use.

However, both teams have excellent defenses as well. How do they match up against Manning and Newton? Let’s break it down.

Panthers offense versus Broncos defense

The real matchup in this game is the Broncos’ defense against Cam Newton. I would say the Panthers’ offense, but he’s the only above average skill-position player.

As noted in my conference title game preview, the Broncos have the top ranked defense by yards per pass attempt and sack rate, both adjusted for schedule. (They’re slacking against the run, ranking only 2nd best in the NFL.) However, Cam Newton presents an entirely new problem.

Not only is Newton bigger than most linebackers, he’s one of the fastest quarterbacks in the NFL. I have little doubt that Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and others can flush Newton from the pocket. However, can they then tackle him?

I thought the Cardinals had their chances to tackle Newton in the NFC championship game but were not able to bring him down (or tackle any one else on the Panthers offense).

I don’t foresee the Panthers’ wide receivers beating the best pass defense in the NFL on initial routes. However, they could make plays if Newton has or creates time to throw. Covering wide receivers may be the hardest job in the NFL. The longer corners are required to cover, the harder it becomes.

The Broncos must contain Newton and make him throw into coverage earlier than he would like.

Broncos offense versus Panthers defense

On the other side of the ball, the Panthers’ defense will not have the same worries. Peyton Manning is as immobile as they come and his arm strength has diminished.

To my surprise, the Broncos came out throwing the ball more than expected last week. Manning protected the ball well, took his sacks when pressured, and did just enough to win the game.

Though I’m still not a huge believer in the Panthers’ secondary, the front seven is solid. They will be able to sit on under routes and short crosses that Manning prefers these days.

Prediction

Despite the Broncos’ shortcomings on offense, there is still value on their side in this game. Pinnacle opened with the Broncos as a 3.5 point underdog, but that number has moved as high as 6. It has settled at 5.5 on Tuesday before the game, while The Power Rank’s member numbers makes the Broncos a 1.1 point underdog.

The difference between the computer projection and the markets is the current state of the Broncos. They’re not as strong as earlier in the season. The recent play is determining the point spread more than season-long statistics.

The question becomes whether or not we should trust recency bias or season-long statistics. I’d prefer to look at the season as a whole, but I can see the case for expecting a blowout in favor of the Panthers.

Personally, I lined this game closer to the open (Broncos +4) and am willing to play it at the current number. With both defenses being very stout, I am expecting a closer game than the Panthers’ have seen lately. It would not surprise me to see the line get bumped back down towards +5 or +4.5 at sharper books. Not to mention, backing the opposite of the public favorites in the NFL has proven to be profitable.

Coming back from behind will prove difficult for the pedestrian Broncos’ offense. They will need to get ahead or keep the game close in the first half to have a chance in Super Bowl 50.

I’m willing to entertain both narratives of this game. Seeing Newton growing into a superstar with relatively no help on offense has been incredible. Manning likely has one foot out of the door, and I wouldn’t mind seeing the old man go out with a ring.

Unfortunately, if Manning does get his ring, it will be a similar story as the AFC championship game. We will credit Wade Phillips’ NFL best defense and incredible game plan to contain Newton. Otherwise, it’ll be another disappointing playoff scenario for Peyton and the near perfect season for the Panthers.

Preview of the NFL conference championships, 2016

sb_trophyWhich teams will make the Super Bowl?

New England travels to Denver as a 3 point favorite. This goes against the numbers, but a strong subjective adjustment suggests that the markets have this one correct.

The story is different for Arizona at Carolina. A look at the match ups and injury situations go against the home favorite Panthers in the NFC championship game.

Let’s take a closer look at both games using the ensemble predictions available to members of The Power Rank.

Patriots at Broncos (Line: +3, The Power Rank: -3.8)

Both the Patriots and the Broncos have played two different seasons. Both teams started the season on fire, then struggled down the stretch.

Though their win-loss record didn’t take a big hit, the Broncos didn’t quite fit the part as the number one seed in the AFC. They’ve been flip-flopping between an “injured” Peyton Manning and the youngster, Brock Osweiler.

The defense kept the Broncos a consistent force all season. Despite, to be fair, awful play at quarterback by both Manning and Osweiler, the Broncos won important games down the stretch on their way to the number one seed.

What made the number one seed possible for the Broncos? The Patriots’ struggles.

After starting 10-0, the Patriots finished the season 2-4 as injuries affected the offense and the secondary struggled.

In my opinion, the Patriots didn’t exactly try to win the last two games of the season. They kicked off in overtime against the Jets and only threw the ball a handful of times against the Dolphins.

I would agree that avoiding the Steelers as the sixth seed was a better opportunity for the Patriots to reach the Super Bowl. With the Broncos knocking off the hobbled Steelers last weekend, this week is an even better opportunity for the Patriots.

The Patriots offense is suddenly healthy. With Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski all appearing close to 100% last week, Tom Brady ripped apart the Chiefs’ solid defense and silenced many doubters (including me).

The discrepancy in The Power Rank’s prediction (Broncos by 3.8) and the actual point spread (Patriots by 3) likely comes from the way these teams are trending health-wise. The Patriots statistical struggles down the stretch could be credited to both not exactly attempting to win games and preserving health for this very moment.

This current Patriots team is much closer to the team that started 10-0 as opposed to the team that closed the season 2-4 while losing to Brock Osweiler in overtime.

Though the Broncos’ defense is extremely stout (the best pass defense and sack rate in The Power Rank’s ratings), quarterback play will hold back this team. They rank just 19th in pass offense and yards per carry (both adjusted for strength of schedule).

I have sympathy for those currently backing the Broncos this week. There is some line value on a team with a great defense getting 3 points at home. But the uncertainty at quarterback position is frightening.

If you are a follower of The Power Rank, you know that rushing ability does not predict wins or losses. The Broncos must be willing to throw the ball on the Patriots’ secondary if they want to stay in this game.

Seeing that they were not willing to throw the ball against the Steelers awful secondary last week, I would not back either team of these teams. Point spreads are pretty efficient this time of the year and I don’t see the number coming off of three on either side throughout the week.

At 3 points, I’ll pass on the side and enjoy the last of the Brady-Manning rivalry that we’ve been blessed with for so many years.

Cardinals at Panthers (Line: -3, The Power Rank: +0.2)

A Cardinals-Panthers matchup is the most we could ask for this NFL season. These teams are very similar on paper and the point spread would suggest they are equals on a neutral field.

Both of these offenses are extremely talented, exciting, and efficient. Both defenses rank in the top twelve in the passing game. Lastly, the most underrated portion of this game is the aggressiveness of coaches Bruce Arians and Ron Rivera.

Though they have beat them twice, the Seahawks are by far the best team the Panthers have played this season. Their own division was very weak and their schedule-matched division this year was the NFC East. That combination alone led to an opponent 47-65 record.

The Panthers did beat the Packers, but we can all admit it wasn’t the typically strong Green Bay team. Overall, Carolina only played two teams in the top half of The Power Rank’s member rankings: Seattle and Green Bay.

The Power Rank’s advantage for the Cardinals comes from pass offense, 1st in the NFL, against the Panthers pass defense. After accounting for strength of schedule, the Panthers pass defense is merely average, 16th in the NFL.

I would agree with this assessment. Outside of Josh Norman, the Panthers secondary is questionable at best. Robert McClain, Cortland Finnegan, and Roman Harper are all liabilities when trying to cover Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, and Michael Floyd. Admittedly, Kurt Coleman has had a huge year with seven interceptions; however, this appears to be more of an aberration when you consider his previous seasons.

Let’s not downplay Cam Newton’s talent, either. He’s lost a total of one game this season while scoring loads of points despite being the only offensive threat on the team. You’ll have to forgive me as this is also my concern.

When looking at the matchup for the Cardinals secondary against Ted Ginn, Devin Funchess, and Kevin Norwood, I can’t say Cam has the upper hand this week.

Playing at home certainly does help. But if you’re giving me the entire three points with a good quarterback, the better secondary, and much better receivers, I’m going to take that every time. I may not agree that the Panthers should be underdogs in this game at home, but the whole three points is too many.

You can follow Frank Brank on Twitter.

Predictions for the Superbowl, 2015

bill_belichickYou want to know whether the Patriots or Seahawks will win the Super Bowl.

Can New England overcome the distractions from deflated footballs and exploit the human mismatch of Rob Gronkowski? Will the injuries to Seattle’s defense prevent them from repeating as Super Bowl champions?

I am extremely split on this Super Bowl. In recent previous years, I usually have a pretty good feel for the game after watching each team for almost 20 weeks.

Ed did an ensemble prediction that combined The Power Rank’s numbers with those from 8 other sources on CNBC. It gave the Seahawks a half point edge, the toss up that I expect.

Even in speaking to some sharper bettors, they seem split on this game on both the outcome and the point spread (New England -1 as of Tuesday afternoon). Nonetheless, let’s highlight some match up advantages and disadvantages for each team.

Patriots Offense vs. Seahawks Defense

The big question for the Seattle defense is the health of cornerback Richard Sherman. Sherman seemed to injury his elbow pretty badly in the NFC Championship as he used only one arm in bump and run coverage against Jordy Nelson.

If Sherman is affected at all by his elbow, I guarantee the Patriots and Tom Brady do their best to exploit the opportunity. If Sherman is close to healthy, it’ll be interesting to see who the Patriots put on his side of the field.

Richard Sherman lines up on the left side of the defense almost 100% of the time. Thus, the opposing offense can almost pick their match up for Sherman.

For the Seahawks, this strategy eliminates one side of the field and the receiver trying to beat Sherman down field. However, the Patriots have a number of equally dangerous receivers.

The catalyst for the Patriots offense is Rob Gronkowski. Since Gronk probably will not line up against Sherman, it’ll be interesting to see Seattle coordinator Dan Quinn’s approach to slowing him down.

They could certainly bring Kam Chancellor down from the safety position to cover Gronkowski. After seeing the soft spot in the middle of the field get exposed by Aaron Rodgers and his tight ends, I’d guess this is exactly what Dan Quinn ends up doing.

The size, speed, and aggressiveness of Chancellor could slow Gronkowski down as much any team has this season. I don’t think anyone can shut him down completely, but it gives them a chance.

In the games I’ve watched, it seems Brandon LaFell tends to lineup on the opposite side of Sherman. Thus, that leaves either Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola taking up Richard Sherman’s time.

Strangely, I would like the Edelman match up against Sherman. If there is the slightest weakness in Sherman’s game, it’s the crossing routes that drag him the width of the field.

I don’t expect the Patriots to stick to the running game like they did against the Colts. Seattle has the second best run defense in the NFL, and I highly doubt LeGarrette Blount will gash the Seahawks like he did the Colts.

If they are going to have success in the running game, it will have to come from smaller, speedier guys like Shane Vereen and Jonas Gray.

Though I’ve heard some talks about the Seahawks front making Tom Brady uncomfortable, they have an average sack rate this season. The Patriots only trailed Denver and Peyton Manning in sack rate allowed this year. Brady should have plenty of time with his usual quick trigger.

Seahawks Offense vs. Patriots Defense

Frankly, I hate this match up for the Seahawks offense. Bill Belichick had a field day with Andrew Luck last week, and this Seahawks offense is a lot less sophisticated.

I never agree with the run-heavy approach, but this might be the best strategy for the Seahawks. New England ranks just inside the top ten in opposing yards per carry but they could also quickly stunt Seattle’s poor passing game.

Belichick’s typical plan is to put Darrelle Revis out on the offense’s best receiver while allowing Browner, McCourty, and the others to match up against the rest of the wide outs with safety help over the top.

It is looking like Jermaine Kearse will end up on Revis Island on Sunday. Kearse does have some speed and has shown to be a down field threat as of late.

However, much like Sherman, Darrelle Revis eliminates the big play. It’s not a great match up for the Seahawks.

Seattle will more than likely depend upon Doug Baldwin and Luke Willson in the passing game. Baldwin is very similar to Kearse with a little less athleticism and speed.

Luke Willson, on the other hand, has shown to be a little better at tight end than most expected. He’s extremely similar to guys like Heath Miller or Jason Witten with good route running and a great set of hands.

I’d expect Russell Wilson to target his tight ends with some bad match ups on the outside. Speaking of Russell Wilson, it is imperative that he runs the ball himself with more success than last week.

Clay Matthews drew the job of spying Wilson throughout the entire game last week. He got after Wilson and really shut him down in the running game.

Jamie Collins will more than likely get that job this week. For those of you haven’t watched Collins play, he’s even quicker and more explosive than Matthews. Regardless, Wilson must finds ways to extend and make plays with his feet.

The Seahawks will need to expose the Patriots defense much like the Ravens did in New England’s first playoff game. They will have to use Baldwin and Willson in the middle of the field while running Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin out on the edge.

Inevitably, Pete Carroll will be creative enough to set up some quick hitters like wide receiver screens, running back screens, end-arounds, and read-options to keep the ball systematically moving down the field.

However, the Seahawks offense isn’t capable of putting up a lot of points.

Prediction

After the games ended last Sunday, I would have leaned extremely heavily on the Patriots. In the way the Seahawks and the Patriots won their games, the better team was clearly the Patriots.

I wasn’t alone in thinking this way. The line opened on Sunday night at Seahawks -2.5. The sharps crushed that line literally within a few minutes. The line snapped down to pick ’em almost immediately and has now settled around Patriots -1 to -1.5 depending where you look.

The books want to make lines as close to 50-50, in terms of money and number of bets, as possible. It seemed like they completely misjudged the public perception after an emotional Seahawks victory and the bigger money bought the line down right away.

After a week of looking over the match ups, this game is much closer than I initially thought. I foresee both defenses being able to control each offense.

In typical weeks, I almost always lean on the defensive side. That’s the side most undervalued in the eye of the public. In return, you typically get favorable lines on good defenses.

The Seahawks defensive value, though, is typically accurate or even overvalued. The next aspect of the game is the quarterbacks and his protection. This edge is significantly in Brady’s favor.

For the sake of picking a winner, I’ll take the Patriots. I think Deflategate will have the Patriots playing angry and give them a little incentive to run up the score if they get ahead instead of taking the laid back approach that the Packers took.

If anyone has an argument in favor either side, I’d love to hear it in the comments because I don’t have much of a lean in breaking this game down. This is as much as a toss up for a Superbowl as I can remember.

Let’s hope this one comes down to the last possession. Enjoy the game and the next eight months until football comes back again next season.

Predictions for the NFL Conference Championship Playoffs, 2015

2014_Conference_ChampionshipThe Divisional playoffs last weekend gave us some close games. New England and Green Bay won but didn’t cover the spread.

Even Seattle’s 14 point win over Carolina was closer than it seemed. Carolina moved the ball regularly against the Seattle defense and threatened to make it close until the interception return by Kam Chancellor, who played as well as any defender I’ve seen all season.

Moreover, Denver might have given Indianapolis a better game if Peyton Manning didn’t have a torn quad muscle. Somehow, news of the injury came out only after the game, as the line moved from 7 to 9.5 in favor of Denver before the game.

The bookmakers did their job, though. According to Sports Insights, every game closed pretty close to a 50% split for each game. Last week’s games certainly suggests taking the points this week.

Colts @ Patriots

The Colts dominated the Broncos in Denver. That’s incredible. The news about Peyton Manning’s torn quad didn’t surprise me. However, his receivers were blanketed for most of that game.

I thought Manning blatantly missed an open receiver only a few times. As we’ve realized before, this Colts defense is a little underrated.

Overall, the Colts pass defense ranks tenth in The Power Rank with a bit of a boost as of late. In the last three weeks, they’ve given up ten points to the Titans, ten points to the Bengals, and thirteen points to the Broncos.

The Colts also boast the ninth best sack rate (7.2%). However, pressuring Tom Brady may still be difficult.

The Patriots front have only given up sacks on 3.6% of drop backs as Tom Brady typically gets the ball out quickly. The Colts will have to blanket more receivers this week if they want a chance to win.

The biggest mismatch is Rob Gronkowksi, as usual. The Colts aren’t exactly known for their linebacker play. If they don’t move safety help or move a corner over to handle Gronk, he could have a huge game.

Even moving a capable body over to handle Gronk leaves so many options for Tom Brady. Defending Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman, the resurrected Danny Amendola, and Shane Vereen out of the backfield is an insane task.

Not to mention, the Patriots offense completely ditched the run last week. They rushed once in the second half, and it was a Tom Brady quarterback sneak. Since passing has been 54% more efficient by yards per play than rushing in the NFL this season, this approach should only increase their likelihood of winning.

The Patriots defense doesn’t have it any easier. Andrew Luck doesn’t have the quick trigger like Brady or Manning, but he does have superior mobility inside and outside the pocket. He also is supported by an impressive offensive line.

Andrew Luck has had clean pockets for the last three weeks, hardly being touched at all. I was mildly surprised the Patriots weren’t able to pressure Joe Flacco last week, especially in the first half. Considering the Patriots front has about an average sack rate, I expect Luck to have some time and find his speedy receivers.

Bill Belichick typically puts Darrelle Revis on the opposition’s best receiver (T.Y. Hilton for the Colts), and matches up Brandon Browner with safety help on the next best receiver. This is what makes Belichick so efficient on defense; he makes other teams beat them with guys they don’t want to use.

For this week, that leaves Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, two capable tight ends, to get open and exploit their defense in the middle of the field. Joe Flacco and the Ravens were able to do this last weekend.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see Browner move in to cover Coby Fleener. However, that still leaves some decent match ups for Donte Moncrief and Hakeem Nicks.

Playing in Foxboro is clearly a big advantage for the Patriots this time of the year. The Colts play their home games in a dome.

The Power Rank’s ensemble predictions give a field goal advantage to the Patriots. I couldn’t agree more. Both these offenses will have success and keep this game close. Be sure to take the points, especially while you’re getting the whole touchdown. [Editor’s note: the line moved to New England -7 to -6.5 from the time Frank submitted this draft to publication on Wednesday afternoon.]

Packers @ Seahawks

The Packers are the beneficiary of some controversy this week as they advanced with the help of instant replay and a questionable rule. By the transitive property, the Seahawks will be the team receiving the benefit this week.

In all seriousness, the Seahawks secondary is terrifying. Kam Chancellor changed the outcome of last week’s game on his own. Richard Sherman may be the most sure-handed cornerback in the NFL. Teams that attempted to run to counter their defensive backs are stopped by a front seven that allows 3.49 yards per rush, second best in the league.

The one weakness of the Seahawks defense is the pass rush. And a lack of pressure against Aaron Rodgers will doom them.

I was actually surprised how well the Cowboys defense contained Rodgers last week. In the second half, though, he really caught his stride and threaded the needle through some tight coverages that doomed the Cowboys.

The aspect that ruined the Panthers last week was turnovers. Even with a costly fumble and an interception, the Panthers found themselves near the Seahawks ten yard line with the opportunity to make it a one possession game. Then Kam Chancellor squatted on a route and took the interception to the house, effectively ending the game.

Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback at avoiding interceptions (career pick rate of 1.6%). I can imagine he will have success against nearly any defense.

Unlike Belichick’s approach, the Seahawks keep Richard Sherman generally on one side of the field. This gives the Packers the opportunity to move Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson on the other side of the field or in the slot, which they do often anyway, providing some favorable match ups.

I still can’t buy into the Seahawks offense, ranked 17th by The Power Rank. After I bashed them last week, the Seahawks put up 31 points. But points can be deceiving.

The Seahawks scored touchdowns on the mentioned pick-six, a 63 yard pass, and after a fumble on the Panthers own 20 yard line. These are all unsustainable ways to continue to score. They only really drove down the field and scored once on the Panthers defense.

I am not trying to compare the Packers defense (24th) to the Panthers defense; the Panthers are much better. However, the Packers don’t need to be great, though, to give themselves a chance to win against this Seahawks offense that depends upon their own opportunistic defense.

The books have lined this game at Seahawks -7.5 which seems a bit inflated to me even with reduced mobility of Aaron Rodgers (slight tear in his calf). Any time you can get north of seven points in a football game, it’s good value. This game is no different.

I like the Packers to cover, and Aaron Rodgers always gives you a chance to win. The Power Rank’s ensemble predictions concur and give the Seahawks a 4.9 point edge (about 63% to win).

Thanks for reading and enjoy the few remaining games. Since I no longer have a horse in the race, I’ll be rooting for a Packers-Patriots Superbowl as that would seem to me to be the most entertaining to watch.

Frank Brank founded cheapseatanalytics.com, a site devoted to analytical sports information and betting systems. He majors in baseball but also covers the NFL and NHL. You can follow him on Twitter @realFrankBrank.

Predictions for the NFL Divisional Round Playoffs, 2015

2014_DivisionWhat’s the NFL without a little controversy? All news is good news for the NFL. The more folks blowing up social media on the missed pass interference call in the Cowboys-Lions game only made more tune into the game.

Conspiracy theorists rejoice.

Overall, I had a pretty solid Wildcard Round last week. Many of the outcomes ended up being as predictable as I had thought. This week will be a little more difficult as the teams get better, the weather gets worse, and the lines get tighter.

Ravens @ Patriots

The first game of the week renews the heated Flacco-Brady rivalry… just kidding.

The Joe Flacco in the Playoffs narrative continues after the Ravens beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh last week. Though his team’s record is impressive in recent years, let’s not depend on a small sample of games spread out across multiple seasons. Flacco will undoubtedly regress towards his career expectancy.

Flacco hasn’t played well on the road in his career. In 56 home games, Flacco has completed 61.7% of his 1740 passes for 7.56 yards per attempt (78 touchdowns, 35 interceptions). In 56 road games, he drops to 59.5% completion rate on 1907 attempts for 6.45 yards per attempt (70 touchdowns, 55 interceptions).

Those road numbers compare to teams like the 49ers, Titans, and Jaguars from this year. For what it’s worth, I quickly scrolled through home/road splits of other quarterbacks like Tony Romo, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and even Andy Dalton without finding a home/road difference even close to Flacco’s.

In addition, he will face New England’s 11th ranked pass defense and 12th best sack rate. That’s quite the step up from Pittsburgh’s abysmal secondary and pass rush.

The Patriots offense, ranked 6th by The Power Rank, also has a favorable match up. Tom Brady will draw the Ravens league average pass defense (15th).

Baltimore does make up for the secondary by getting after the quarterback. The Power Rank predicts they sack the opposing quarterback on 8.25% of pass attempts against average pass protection. The issue, of course, is Tom Brady doesn’t take many sacks. New England gives up a 3.7% sack rate against an average pass rush, second best in the NFL.

If you’re backing the Ravens because of Joe Flacco’s recent playoff success, you should look at the difference in his home and road performance. He doesn’t play well on the road compared to other quarterbacks.

Markets opened this game at Patriots -8.5. With some money coming in early, this line was adjusted moved down to Patriots -7.

This game is appropriately lined given the Patriots home dominance over the last decade; however, there’s some clear line value any time you can get an underdog north of seven points. Baltimore is still getting the slim majority of the bets, so this line has a small chance to get under seven points. The value would then be flipped to the Patriots.

I’ll take the Patriots to win with comfort and hope the Joe Flacco in the Playoffs story is put to rest.

Panthers @ Seahawks

The Panthers and Seahawks couldn’t be further away in the standings. However, they play similar styles of football with an aggressive defense and run first offense.

Throughout the season, the Seahawks executed that style better since they had 12-4 regular season record versus the 7-8-1 mark of the Panthers.

Continuing with the similarities, each of these teams have played some cupcake games recently. Seattle finished the season winning six straight games with two games against quarterback-depleted Arizona, two against San Francisco, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.

Carolina has won five straight against New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Atlanta, and a quarterback-depleted Arizona. Nonetheless, these are still professional football players and no opponent should be taken for granted.

The Panthers and Seahawks each have elite defenses. The Panthers defensive numbers are a little skewed as they’ve gotten healthy as the season has progressed and have played much better as of late.

According to The Power Rank, they still rank 13th on defense with the seventh best pass rush. Sacks have disrupted Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offense all season (8.8% sack rate).

I don’t believe this is a knock to the offensive line; Wilson has held onto the ball entirely too long. Lacking a real threat on offense could be the issue.

The Seahawks traded away Percy Harvin, leaving Doug Baldwin and Luke Wilson as the most dangerous weapons on offense. Wilson has been able to improvise with his legs; however, there is no doubt in my mind that Luke Keuchly will be spying him all game.

The Seahawks offense, ranked 17th, should struggle against a fast, opportunistic Carolina defense.

The Panthers offense will be in a similar situation. The Seahawks, who also struggled on defense at the start of the season by their standards, have worked their way up to the fifth best defense per The Power Rank.

Cam Newton has played better lately, but I expect him to have similar issues as Russell Wilson in this game.  Newton certainly has more weapons at his disposal, but he’ll also oppose the better defense.

The books have lined this game at Seahawks -10.5 after opening at Seahawks -11. This game should be much closer than that. Even with the Panthers playing much better lately, 56% of the public has laid all those points with the Seahawks.

I simply don’t think the Seahawks can score enough points to cover a double digit line. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Panthers have a good chance to win this game with such limited scoring. One big play can change the outcome.

Cowboys @ Packers

The Cowboys narrowly scraped by last week, as we thought they might, with a little help from the referees, of course. The Packers had a week to rest, which should only help them continue their home dominance.

The Packers have a ridiculous offense, which you don’t need me to break it down. The Cowboys also have a great offense, so where is the edge for each team?

For starters, the Cowboys defense is not very good. I was supremely impressed by their second half against Detroit. They shut down the running game, pressured Stafford, and held the Lions offense to three points.

However, the Cowboys defense was terrible in the first half against Detroit. If they lay an egg in either half of this game, Aaron Rodgers will take advantage and put them away early considering the Cowboys defense ranks 27th in passing defense and 29th in sack rate.

The Packers defense may have similar issues. Though the offense started slow last week, the Cowboys have roughed up even the best of defenses, including the Seahawks in Seattle.

According to The Power Rank, Green Bay’s defense now sits 24th in passing defense and 17th in sack rate. They have certainly been better than Dallas, but it’s not a wide margin by any means.

Even with temperatures expected to be around twenty degrees at game time, I expect some points. The books expect the same with a total of 53, only trailing the Broncos-Colts total by one point.

Having an opinion on this game is difficult. I really do trust Green Bay’s home dominance, but I also trust that they will give up some points.

There’s certainly a chance the Cowboys hang in there and win this game, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

The Power Rank has the Packers by a touchdown and I agree with that number. The betting line is also hovering around Packers -6.5.

On a neutral field, these teams are very close to equals. At Lambeau, I’ll take the Packers over any team.

This is a rare game where the hot and cold of the Cowboys isn’t swaying their betting line. If you’re going to take a side, grab the Cowboys and the points, but the books got this one right.

Colts @ Broncos

Many thought the Colts were in trouble after the closing weeks of the regular season. However, their offensive line dominated the Bengals pass rush in their Wildcard game and gave Andrew Luck plenty of time to find his speedy receivers.

The Broncos got the week off they desperately needed. They have some injuries on their offensive line.  Even the Bengals horrendous pass rush was able to exploit those soft spots up front.

The Broncos face a good Colts pass rush ranked 9th in sack rate adjusted for schedule. They also have a good secondary, as the Colts pass defense is very underrated at 10th in The Power Rank.

The Broncos front will be better this week than in recent weeks. Though it’s a tall task with his quick releases, but if the Colts front seven can disrupt Peyton, they might have a chance to win this game.

Ed and I have talked previously and agree that the Broncos are a better team, at least statistics-wise, than they were last year at this point.

The Broncos are the top ranked team in The Power Rank and have the second best pass defense with a strength of schedule adjustment for yards per attempt.

Peyton Manning still has the best overall protection with the aid of his quick timing routes and the best passing attack. Very few would question that.

The questionable part is their now run-happy offense. C.J. Anderson has emerged as one of the better power backs with added quickness in the league. Realistically, though, Peyton Manning should be throwing the ball more often, as he leads the top ranked pass offense.

If the Colts want to survive and advance, they’ll need to get to Manning. It’s that simple. If he has time in the pocket, Manning has proven for nearly two decades that opposing teams have a very small chance to beat him.

I don’t foresee the pressure being sufficient and expect the Broncos to win comfortably. The books have lined this around a touchdown. The Power Rank likes the Broncos by a little more with an ensemble prediction of -8.6.

The difference is the key number of seven points. You want to be on the correct side of that number. I can live with laying 6.5 points with Denver. You probably won’t see less than a touchdown anywhere, though. I also wouldn’t be opposed to taking the points at Colts +7.5.

Outlook

I really can imagine two of the underdogs, Panthers and Cowboys, winning this week. I would rank them in that order of likelihood, as well. The Panthers being double digit dogs may disagree with me, but I love the match up.

With no games inside of 6.5 points in Vegas, they are suggesting a pretty boring Divisional round. However, we know well enough the playoffs are always exciting. Sports have insanely random outcomes in the one game samples you’ll get this week.

Frank Brank founded cheapseatanalytics.com, a site devoted to analytical sports information and betting systems. He majors in baseball but also covers the NFL and NHL. You can follow him on Twitter @realFrankBrank.